For Bruininks, one last budget battle, then a final bow

After nine years as president, Bob Bruininks is prepared to return to the faculty.

by Conor Shine

Bob Bruininks arrived as a professor on the University of Minnesota campus in the fall of 1968 with his wife and infant son in tow.
The country was still reeling from the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and student protests against the Vietnam War raged throughout campus.
âÄúThe campus was very much in turmoil,âÄù Bruininks said. âÄúThe war was not a popular cause, for very good reason. The students had it right back then.âÄù
Faculty met nearly every day in conference rooms to discuss the war, civil rights and other issues facing the country. Bruininks participated in the discussions and several rallies, but like many new professors, the 26-year-oldâÄôs attention was also focused on the upcoming classes heâÄôd be teaching.
âÄúI had two classes to teach, and I thought IâÄôd better get busy because my course outlines werenâÄôt finished,âÄù he said. âÄúIt was an anxious time for all of us and a difficult transition.âÄù
In 2002, professor Bruininks became President Bruininks. Now, more than 40 years after he came to campus, Bruininks is preparing to step down after leading the only university heâÄôs ever called home through a decade of declining state funding and financial uncertainty.
His final months have been filled with apprehension as the University prepares to implement another wage freeze and more tuition hikes to offset a likely $160 million cut in state funding.
Come July, Stony Brook University Provost Eric Kaler will take over as president, and Bruininks will finally get the chance to take the break heâÄôs been putting off for decades before returning to the University faculty.
âÄúI feel good about what weâÄôve done,âÄù he said. âÄúIâÄôm disappointed about a few things that got away, but on the whole IâÄôd say âĦ we laid the foundation for a stronger future.âÄù
âÄòModernizingâÄô the U
In June 2005, Bruininks submitted a proposal to the Board of Regents that would fundamentally reorganize the University in pursuit of becoming one of the top three public research institutions in the world.
The âÄúTransforming the UâÄù initiative launched a strategic planning process that was met with contentious debate and some cynicism on campus.
Growing the research enterprise was a key part of the initiative and the University focused on commercializing its discoveries and investing in research infrastructure.
Bruininks said the University has an obligation to advance knowledge and connect its work to the public good.
âÄúI felt we couldnâÄôt continue to advance âĦ unless we put in strategies to systemically improve our competitive performance,âÄù he said. âÄúYou have to keep improving, otherwise you stagnate or sometimes even decline.âÄù
The investments largely paid off, with University research spending growing to $741 million, an increase of 41 percent since 2004, according to the most recent National Science Foundation data.
A new center for biomedical research is blooming on campus, and 15 companies have been spun off of University research.
Interdisciplinary research has become a hot topic in higher education over the last decade, and Bruininks has pushed for new collaborations between departments to tackle big issues like climate change, food safety and disease research.
The University hasnâÄôt met BruininksâÄô lofty goal of becoming a top-three research institution âÄî something Bruininks is ok with, noting there will always be room for improvement.
He describes himself as constantly thinking âÄúin the future tense,âÄù and said strategic planning was meant to start the University on a path of self-reflection and modernization.
âÄúI think at least we started a very rich conversation on those issues,âÄù he said.
In pursuing his research goals, Bruininks oversaw restructuring of academic colleges. The closing of the 80-year-old General College was met with the fiercest resistance.
An access point for students who wouldnâÄôt normally qualify for admission, the General College had a long history of success stories and was considered by many to be a core part of the UniversityâÄôs diversity effort.
But graduation rates of General College students lagged. After much debate, Bruininks moved General CollegeâÄôs programs into the College of Education and Human Development as part of a reshuffling that also created the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Science and the College of Design.
Undergraduate Sofia Shank, who cofounded a student group that advocates on diversity issues, said the closing of General College represented a shift in the UniversityâÄôs priorities, leading to a loss of access and narrowing diversity in pursuit of better rankings. Shank argues that the University sacrificed its commitment to underprivileged students in the name of research prestige.
âÄúLots of students can name something about the research institution that was branded quite well,âÄù she said. âÄúIn terms of the broader reality of what it means to be a research institution and the kinds of priorities that have to be demoted … I donâÄôt think thatâÄôs been communicated clearly at all.âÄù
The budget crisis has forced Bruininks to make difficult decisions, and although not all of them have been popular with faculty and staff âÄìâÄì like pay freezes and furloughs âÄìâÄì professor George Sheets said Bruininks has always been forthright.
âÄúHeâÄôs not someone who dodges or seeks to encourage soft-ball questions,âÄù Sheets said. âÄúHeâÄôll take the tough ones and answer them.âÄù
Upping the caliber of students attending the University and improving the undergraduate experience was another core element of âÄúTransforming the U.âÄù The University Honors College was expanded, a new undergraduate research program was launched and a new week-long orientation for incoming freshman, dubbed âÄúWelcome Week,âÄù was introduced.
Four-year graduation rates have increased by 15 percent during his tenure, with the University granting 600 more undergraduate degrees per year in 2010 than it did in 2005.
With tuition prices rising quickly, student scholarships have also increased dramatically, fueled largely by the âÄúPromise of TomorrowâÄù scholarship campaign Bruininks helped to start in 2003. The UniversityâÄôs new strategy of matching private donations for scholarships helped raise $320 million.
Another $70 million in scholarship support was raised in conjunction with fundraising for TCF Bank Stadium and through the sale of its naming rights.
âÄúScholarships really mattered,âÄù chemistry professor Chris Cramer said, something Bruininks was not given enough credit for.
From a few months to nine years
Bob Bruininks never expected to become president.
After 30 years working his way up the ranks at the University of Minnesota âÄìâÄì first as a professor, later as dean and then eventually as provost âÄìâÄì he found himself put in charge of the school in 2002, at a critical time in its history.
With the sudden departure of then president Mark Yudof and the school facing an unprecedented $200 million cut in its state funding, Bruininks was chosen to provide a steady hand while a successor was chosen.
He planned to stay in the position for only a few months and never applied for the permanent post. He hoped to take a sabbatical and then return to the faculty to serve as a professor.
âÄúI told the [Board of Regents] I wouldnâÄôt be an active candidate, that I was going to focus on the issues at hand,âÄù Bruininks said. âÄúI didnâÄôt expect them to talk to me about keeping the job long-term.âÄù
Bruininks was at dinner with his wife Susan Hagstrum on a November night when he received a call and stepped outside.
âÄúHe mouthed to me that they wanted to offer him the job,âÄù Hagstrum said. âÄúEverybody in the restaurant was looking at us because we were pantomiming through the window.âÄù
Colleagues describe Bruininks as an academic at heart who treasures deliberation and works to get as many people as possible to buy-in before moving forward.
âÄúBob is a collaborator and a consensus builder,âÄù his-chief-of-staff Kathy Brown said. âÄúHe listens to a lot of different viewpoints and he tries to determine the best pathway, and then he tries to bring other people along.âÄù
Cramer, who sits on the faculty consultative committee, said Bruininks often uses professors as a sounding board for ideas, attending faculty governance meetings and inviting leaders to breakfast or lunch when he wants more input.
âÄúIt reflects the fact that he rose through the ranks here,âÄù Cramer said. âÄúHe knows lots of people, and as a result I think thatâÄôs given him a greater sense of ease in consulting with the faculty.âÄù
Faculty may not always agree with BruininksâÄô approach to solving problems, but Cramer said itâÄôs always apparent he cares about the University.
âÄúFor him, itâÄôs not just a management position,âÄù Cramer said. âÄúHeâÄôs really got this sense of itâÄôs his home and that heâÄôs taking care of his home.âÄù
In a series of interviews with professors, administrators and legislators, Bruininks was universally described as friendly and courteous.
âÄúHe tends to give you the medicine with a smile,âÄù Brown said.
HeâÄôs also known to be a bit long-winded.
âÄúThe one thing everybody who works with him knows, thereâÄôs nothing that can be said in five minutes that Bob Bruininks will not take 30 minutes to say,âÄù Cramer said. âÄúItâÄôs not that heâÄôs saying inane things. HeâÄôs avuncular.âÄù
âÄòWalleye BobâÄô
Born February 1942 in Grand Rapids, Mich., Bruininks grew up the son of an autoworker and the oldest of five children.
He spent his formative years in the back of a canoe, which spawned a love of the outdoors that has lasted a lifetime.
His favorite spot on campus is the Washington Avenue walking bridge overlooking the Mississippi River, and he gets visibly excited when talking about new bike trails being built through campus.
A 17-pound, 6-ounce walleye, the second-largest in state history, hangs mounted in his office at Morrill Hall, and he takes the opportunity to tell anyone who passes through that the fish would have been the state record, if only heâÄôd gotten it to the scale sooner.
He pulled the fish out of Loon Lake in 1989 near his cabin on the Gunflint Trail, a frequent getaway spot on the Boundary Waters for Bruininks during his presidency. After the catch, the Grand Marais newspaper nicknamed him âÄúWalleye BobâÄù.
He paid his way through college with loans and by working various jobs âÄî including as a summer wilderness guide in Ontario, a landscaper, a construction worker and a music teacher.
Music was BruininksâÄô first love, and he enrolled at Western Michigan University as a trumpet major with his eyes on becoming a professional musician. He eventually put his trumpet aside to pursue a degree in education and now only uses it to occasionally play the Minnesota Rouser.
After moving to Nashville and receiving a doctorate in educational psychology at what is now Vanderbilt University, he took his first professorship at the University of Minnesota, spurning offers from the University of Illinois and the University of California, Los Angeles.
âÄúI decided that the best match to my interests was here in Minnesota,âÄù he said. âÄúI thought, like most people, IâÄôd be here for a while and then be attracted to an offer somewhere else.âÄù
Dozens of other offers did come, including invitations to apply for presidential openings at several schools while he was serving as provost.
He left the University for two years in the 1970s to join the state planning agency in an effort to move mentally handicapped Minnesotans out of large congregations, where they often lived in warehouse-like conditions.
âÄúWe worked to phase out the institutions and return [people] to productive lives as citizens in local communities,âÄù Bruininks said.
The effort required serious work rewriting guardianship and housing laws, and let Bruininks connect his research to the broader community, a recurring theme during his time as president.
Bruininks returned to the University to continue a productive career that spawned 90 journal articles and more than 70 book chapters. His research focused on adolescent development, particularly in disadvantaged communities, and worked to identify factors that affect studentsâÄô abilities to learn and adapt.
âÄúIâÄôve always been intrigued with the big questions of how people learn, how they develop socially and emotionally,âÄù he said.
He met his wife Susan Hagstrum in 1981 when she was pursuing her doctoral degree at the University and Bruininks was a divorced professor. He tried to convince Hagstrum to leave her job in the public schools to work as a graduate assistant.
âÄúHe offered me the unbelievable opportunity to take a 50 percent pay cut. I said no, thank you,âÄù Hagstrum said. But the two stayed in touch and two years later he called her for a date.
Playing politics
Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, has heard Bruininks argue for the University numerous times throughout his years on the higher education committee. Nornes described Bruininks as âÄúfactual and to the pointâÄù when testifying before the Legislature, and said he always made a strong case, regardless of whether it was for student support or new buildings.
Unfortunately for Bruininks, his ideas and arguments were often met with the reality of budget deficits and cuts in funding.
âÄúHad we had the money, thereâÄôs no doubt he would have gotten the money he was asking for,âÄù Nornes said.
During BruininksâÄô tenure, the UniversityâÄôs state support declined in two out of four budget cycles, with another cut coming this session.
The first drop came in the midst of the recession in the early 2000s, shortly after the dot-com bubble burst when Bruininks had barely settled into his new office in Morrill Hall.
He dealt with the $200 million cut in a variety of ways, including restructuring employee benefits and implementing double-digit tuition increases in consecutive years.
âÄúWhen [Gov. Tim] Pawlenty said âÄòno new taxes,âÄô I knew we were in for a very big budget reduction,âÄù Bruininks said. âÄúI think all of us thought, âÄòIf we get through this recession, itâÄôs going to be great for the next eight or 10 years.âÄôâÄù
But another, deeper recession struck in 2008. Its effects still linger in the form of a $5 billion state budget deficit legislators are currently grappling with.
The University used federal stimulus dollars to keep tuition increases in the single digits while freezing employee salaries, trimming administrative positions and seeking new ways to save costs on everything from heating bills to printer cartridges.
Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, praised Bruininks for offsetting the budget cuts by increasing private fundraising and research revenues. She said heâÄôs done a good job cutting costs but still thinks thereâÄôs more to be trimmed, especially in administration.
âÄúThe first round of cuts in 2003 and 2004 I donâÄôt think were handled well because [the UniversityâÄôs] reaction was to raise tuition 13 and 14 percent,âÄù Robling said. âÄúI think they took it a little more seriously the second time.âÄù
Bruininks is slow to fault the state for the declining funding, and said the University has a role in helping address state budget deficits. Bruininks credits the Legislature for strongly supporting capital projects, like the ongoing renovation of Folwell Hall and the $300 million biomedical research district on the northeast edge of campus that is nearing completion.
âÄúI donâÄôt think we need people to throw money at us, but we do need the state to be a steady, predictable partner,âÄù he said.
Finally, a break
Soon, Bruininks will return to the University of Minnesota, again a professor âÄìâÄì a job he calls âÄúthe best on campus.âÄù
He will have a new home in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and his research will focus more on public policy than educational psychology.
âÄúI think his focus is broader,âÄù Hagstrum said. âÄúHeâÄôs more interested in policy, leadership and working to develop new leaders and mentor them.âÄù
But before he returns, thereâÄôs something he needs to do.
When his original stint as interim president ended, Bruininks had planned to take a sabbatical to spend more time with his family before eventually returning to the faculty.
New promotions and opportunities had nixed his plans for three different sabbaticals over the previous decades, but Bruininks was intent on finally returning to his research roots after a vacation with his wife to Italy.
But his career, and the University, came calling once again. The sabbatical was postponed.
Now, Bruininks and Hagstrum plan to visit Ireland and France over the coming months, as well as California and Oregon to see their grandchildren. HeâÄôs convinced heâÄôll finally be able to take a break.
âÄúIâÄôve missed three or four,âÄù Bruininks said. âÄúIâÄôm going to get it this time.âÄù